Directed by William A. Seiter
Screenplay by Devery Freeman
Based on a story by Devery Freeman
Music by Hans J. Salter
Edited by Harry Keller
Cinematography by Lucien N. Andriot
Fred MacMurray as Johnny Macklin
Claire Trevor as Madeleine Haley
Raymond Burr as Pete Ritchie
Jose Torvay as Miguel
Morris Ankrum as Bill Whittaker
Roy Roberts as Harvey Gumbin
Don Diamond as Deusik
Nacho Galindo as Porfirio
Pepe Hern as Pablo
Grazia Narciso as Porfirio’s wife
Clifton Young as the suspect questioned by Whittaker
Charles Lane as Peterson, the customs officer
Johnny Indrisano as Gumbin’s henchman
Chrispin Martin as Pepi, the hotel clerk
Distributed by Universal International
Produced by Republic Pictures
Borderline has so many of the characteristics common to noir: murder, smuggling drugs across the U.S.-Mexican border, cops and federal agents working undercover. Claire Trevor, Raymond Burr, and Fred MacMurray were all veterans of film noir by the time Borderline was released in 1950. But the film has a plotline that I don’t find very often in films noir: romance fulfilled!
The film starts very specifically at the U.S. Treasury Department, Customs Agency Service. An agent interviews two dope smugglers, a couple, about their confiscated stash. The man is led away to be booked because he refuses to talk. The woman, on the other hand, agrees to talk, but she doesn’t know a whole lot about the agents’ main concern, a drug smuggler named Pete Ritchie, and she is led away to be booked, too.
The interview is observed through a two-way mirror by two agents, a police officer, and one woman (Madeleine Haley). Haley is with the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD). These four join the interviewer when he is finished with the two suspects, and Haley offers to go undercover to gather some information about Pete Ritchie. The police officer and the federal agents often talk about Haley in the third person, as if she is not even present (it helps to remember that this film was released in 1950). But Haley is persistent and insists on speaking for herself. She wants the undercover work. She has already proved herself as a capable Office of Special Services (OSS) agent during World War II. Finally, all the men agree, without consulting her, that Haley will go to Mexico to find out what she can about Pete Ritchie—but only because a woman might have better luck ensnaring a man, any man, including a dope smuggler.
Haley looks for Pete Ritchie in Mexico and finds him. She also meets another smuggler, Johnny Macklin, who gets his narcotics from Harvey Gumbin to smuggle from Mexico to the United States. Macklin and Gumbin are stealing the narcotics from Ritchie. Macklin’s latest haul, hidden in the bottom of a birdcage and in a music box, is ready to go across the border. He kidnaps Madeleine Haley and forces her to go with him—along with the birdcage and the music box—to the United States because he thinks she is Ritchie’s girlfriend and would be a good source of information. Of course, Macklin has no idea that Haley is a police officer and was never Ritchie’s girlfriend, and Haley knows very little about Macklin except that he’s another drug smuggler.
The two leads in Borderline are first repulsed by one another because of this mistaken identity. Both of them are agents working undercover in Mexico, and they are so good at their jobs that they fool one another. Macklin believes that Haley is the girlfriend of the notorious drug smuggler Pete Ritchie; Haley believes Macklin is Ritchie’s rival drug smuggler. Macklin is taking his latest drug haul, the one hidden in the bottom of the bird cage and in the music box, to the United States. But Macklin is also on the run from Ritchie and his gang of thugs. Ritchie has discovered that Macklin is stealing from him, and he won’t let this theft go unpunished. Macklin now has Haley for company; Ritchie also assumes that she will talk and figures he’ll kill her, too.
(This blog post about Borderline contains all the spoilers.)
Macklin and Haley are slowly drawn toward one another while they head north for the U.S.–Mexico border. Macklin never once suspects Haley of trying to escape and rejoining Ritchie, even though he thinks Haley is Ritchie’s girlfriend. While they are on the run, they stop for the night at a hotel, and Macklin allows Haley every opportunity to leave. When she gets ready to go to the communal bathroom down the hall, he tells her, “Don’t talk to strangers.” Haley’s response: “I don’t know any strangers.” Her wisecracking keeps Macklin on his toes, and he learns to appreciate her sense of humor.
Macklin and Haley’s trip north is not a smooth ride. They pose as a married couple so that Macklin will attract less suspicion and can smuggle the narcotics successfully. Their plans are nearly thwarted at almost every point, and not just because Ritchie is pursuing them. One of Macklin’s friends, who joins them on the road, dies of his injuries after a shootout with Ritchie. Macklin and Haley are forced to abandon their car and walk to the nearest airport. On the way, they flag down a ride with the local sheriff, who takes them the rest of the way to the airport. They find a pilot with a four-seater willing to take them to the United States, but the plane runs out of gas and they are forced to land on an empty beach until they can take off again during daylight hours with the spare tank. Finally, they find another car to drive across the border.
Macklin and Haley learn each other’s true identity at the border, in the U.S. customs office. Macklin still has to work undercover and deliver the smuggled narcotics to his connections. He is backed up by the customs office and the LAPD. Law enforcement plans to go in after the criminals in their hideout, with Macklin taking the lead because the criminals already know him and still think he is one of them. A shootout ensues when the rest of the law enforcement officers arrive at the hideout. Macklin survives, and he and Haley are reunited.
Do any of these plot points sound familiar to you? I know a lot of romantic comedies have similar storylines, but I am thinking specifically of It Happened One Night, the 1934 film starring Claudette Colbert and Clark Gable and directed by Frank Capra. The plots of both films are remarkably similar. As far as I know, Borderline is not a remake of anything, let alone It Happened One Night. But I sure kept thinking of It Happened One Night both times that I watched Borderline. It wasn’t hard for me to develop the two lists below, showing the similarities between the two films.
So many things—not just the similarity to It Happened One Night—about watching Borderline were a surprise for me. One is the chemistry between Fred MacMurray’s character, Johnny Macklin, and Claire Trevor’s, Madeleine Haley. I have seen MacMurray in other noirs (Pushover, Double Indemnity) and I can never quite believe him as an homme fatale or a romantic interest. Romance is not the main point of a noir, but the attraction is supposed to sizzle and then burn because it is often the impetus for the commission of a crime or two. I can never be convinced of it, however, between MacMurray and Kim Novack in Pushover, and between MacMurray and Barbara Stanwyck in Double Indemnity.
That changed with Borderline. The chemistry between Johnny Macklin and Madeleine Haley carries the film. Claire Trevor is fantastic in almost every movie of hers that I have seen, so maybe some of the on-screen magic can be attributed to her remarkable talent. Or maybe MacMurray has finally met his true leading lady.
The lighthearted mood was another surprise. In fact, Borderline could be called a film noir comedy or a noir romance—one without a femme or an homme fatale. The guns, undercover intrigue, betrayals, drug smuggling, murder, attempted murder, and other assorted crimes make Borderline a film noir, but it could also be called a noir romantic comedy. Some of this must be attributable to the screenwriter, Devery Freeman. The copy of the DVD I watched included a text featurette called quite simply “Film Background.” From it, I learned that Devery Freeman worked on three Red Skelton pictures: The Fuller Brush Man (1948), The Good Humor Man (1950), and Watch the Birdie (1951). In 1956, he wrote the final Abbott and Costello film Dance with Me, Henry. And the text featurette makes the following point:
“. . . In Borderline, Freeman injects quite a bit of humor into the usually humorless film noir.”
I must confess that I didn’t find myself laughing out loud during Borderline, but it certainly has its humorous moments.